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An Ordinary Mother

Mom, whenever I saw you making crystal dumplings in the kitchen, my stomach turned upside down.

The crystal dumplings took about ten hours to make: soaking the rice for two hours, mixing it with pureed turnips, and steaming for three hours; four hours to cool steamed crystal dumplings, which were then fried. Every time you made this dish, you lost your temper, because you were too exhausted. Every time I ate it, I was watchful for fear of provoking you. But Mom, I hated this so-called delicious and nutritious food. And you shouted, “I worked so hard to make them! Why don’t you appreciate it?”

I never understood why you insisted on making crystal dumplings even though it was exhausting; that is, until I became a mother. You quit your busy job to take care of me. Your life was centered on me every day. You cooked, did laundry, and helped me with homework. You never let me forget that you were a dedicated and great mother. You expected me to repay you by listening to you and getting good grades. Whenever you said, “It’s all for your own good,” I felt weighed down. When I had Lan, I resolved to be a good mother but not a resentful one. I would be a better mother.

Although I knew eggs were good for kids, Lan didn’t like them, and I never pushed her. She loved kiwi fruits. Although they cost a lot, I often bought them. I spooned out the pulp for her, and the thin pulp on the kiwi skin was for me. She loved eating fish, so I removed the fish bones for her. She asked, “Mom, don’t you like fish?” And I lied: “I like the fish head.”

Until the day my daughter said, “Mom, I’m tired of steamed fish.” Instantly, I yelled, “I worked so hard to steam the fish! Why don’t you appreciate it?” It struck me that I had become a mother like you.

When I was young, I wanted to grow up, so I could leave home and be independent of you. But when I reached my age, I became a mother like you. I fell into self-doubt. When I talked with my friends, I found that most had negative impressions of our mothers, who we believed were nagging and bad-tempered. We thought we would never be like our mothers. However, we eventually became them because we learned by example.

My friend Yan lived far away from her parents and, due to the covid-19 policy in China, she hadn’t visited them for three years. When she visited this year, her mother made many dishes she liked. She realized that she hadn’t made her favorite dishes for a long time; all the dishes she made were her son’s and husband’s favorites. In her thirties, she suddenly found that she didn’t even know what her mother liked to eat. Tears wet her eyes.

We didn’t want our mothers to sacrifice themselves for us, but after marriage, we either did house chores or took care of the children. Like our mothers, we had few social interactions, no hobbies, and no entertainment. Is it the mother’s fate in our part of China? Is this a motherhood penalty?

Mom, I don’t want to live like you. When I yelled at Lan for being “ungrateful,” she froze, cried, and wanted me to hug her. Immediately I remembered how it felt when you made sacrifices; I felt guilty rather than moved. I believed I was responsible for all the unhappiness in your life. All I wanted was for you to be happy. You had spent your entire life showing me the consequences of self-sacrificing, and I decided not to follow your example so that when Lan became a mother, she would be a different mother.

Parents are a mirror of the child. If you expect the child to be confident and independent, you have to be so; if you want your child to be happy, you must be that way. We shouldn’t turn our negative emotions into stealth genes and pass them on to our children. As mothers, we can sometimes put ourselves first, so our children won’t be burdened with our “love.”

Sometimes I order takeout. I know; I can hear your warnings in my ear:
Restaurants choose heavy seasonings, leading to excessive intake of oil and salt.
Restaurants reuse frying oil to make dishes that contain carcinogens.
Restaurants use stale or expired ingredients.

I know all the potential dangers, so I only order takeout when I am too busy, and I choose only reliable restaurants.

Mom, when I don’t have to be a great mother all the time, I feel a lot lighter, and Lan is also happier.

Last week, I took you and Lan out for grilled fish at a famous Sichuan restaurant. You offered to eat non-spicy food for Lan’s sake, but you and I both enjoy spicy food. I told you, “I will buy Lan a hamburger.” You looked at me in shock. I know, traditionally, a responsible mother should never feed junk food to her child. I decided not to listen to this accusatory voice.

Just as you started, I cut you off. “Lan likes hamburgers. Don’t you, Lan?”

Lan cheered and said, “Yes, I love hamburgers!”

Only when we love ourselves, we won’t resent our children for being “ungrateful.” Children can learn from their parents how to love themselves and grow up happily.

Mom, we don’t have to be great mothers; let’s just be ordinary mothers. We can learn to love each other more this way.

Huina Zheng: MA in English, essay coach, published writer (Pushcart Prize nominee), Guangzhou-based with family.